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A chemical engineer by training, John Lefas spent about six years working in Imperial Oil Limited’s plastic division before he decided to follow his own entrepreneurial goals.
In 1986, Lefas entered into a 50/50 joint venture with a New Jersey-based supplier and established WedTech Inc. with a plant in Brantford, Ont., producing powders for the rotational moulding industry. It was a small company that quickly grew. In fact, by 1990 WedTech had opened a second plant in Calgary. In short order, it built plants in Dewey, Oklahoma, and Houston, followed by a sales office in Mexico. By 1998, Lefas bought out his partner, and the wholly owned business was renamed Ingenia Polymers Corp.
In many ways, the decision to grow outside Canada was made out of necessity. Ingenia had already achieved very high penetration rates in Canada. “We knew if we limited ourselves to Canada we would be restricting our opportunity to grow. It was a case of ambition, plus need. If you don’t grow, you stagnate,” says Lefas. At the same time, NAFTA had effectively turned North America into one economic area. “Our customers started making North American purchasing decisions and that meant we had to satisfy their needs in a much broader way. We could not afford to appear to be a strictly Canadian company.”
Ingenia found itself in another grow or stagnate situation seven years ago. In North America the industry was starved for the supply of a key raw material: gas. “No one was investing in new petrochemical plants to build capacity here because of the lack of resources,” says Lefas. “We started looking around for the next logical place to grow.”
Several of Ingenia’s customers were investing heavily in the Middle East and encouraged Lefas to follow. Saudi Arabia ticked the right boxes. It has a plentiful supply of hydro carbons. It is a high growth area. And it is a ready market for Ingenia. Lefas and his team spent two to three years walking the land, talking to local governments, bankers, embassies, clients and suppliers, and learning about the culture and how business is conducted in order to assimilate. “Wherever we go as a mid-size company, we have to integrate with the local community. A large multinational can create its own ecosystem. A company our size has to put in the effort to assimilate.”
It also put the effort into understanding the market, trends and building robust multiyear strategic growth plans based on its knowledge of what existing and potential customers were buying, their growth prospects and demographics.
Today, Ingenia Polymers is a respected global supplier of chemical and plastic raw materials and specialized products for multinational petrochemical manufacturers. It also manufactures its own brand of materials for downstream converters, companies that make flexible packaging films, greenhouse gas bags and packaging for convenience foods, for example. It has operations in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, India, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Luxembourg.
More than 80 per cent of Ingenia’s revenues come from its foreign operations. And the company is in growth mode. “If you are only in one place it’s like building a stool with one leg. Expanding globally helps you mitigate risk and grow,” says Lefas. Another benefit of its global growth strategy: employee engagement. “People want to be part of a company that is growing and creating opportunities for them to grow professionally.”
Ingenia is scouting new opportunities in Latin America, Mexico, Southeast Asia and Europe. “We have an established model of how to assess a new market, and we have a global reputation,” says Lefas. “People know and trust us.”